- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 21, 2004

President Bush yesterday defended Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld against congressional critics and conceded the United States cannot force Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions.

In a year-end press conference, Mr. Bush expressed confidence in Mr. Rumsfeld, who has come under fire for his handling of the war in Iraq.

“I believe he’s doing a really fine job,” the president said in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. “And I believe that in a new term, members of the Senate and the House will recognize what a good job he’s doing.”

Mr. Bush said Mr. Rumsfeld will be needed in the second term to help deal with threats such as Iran and North Korea. But the president acknowledged that the United States does not have many tools to end Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, now that Washington has imposed sanctions.

“We’re relying upon others, because we’ve sanctioned ourselves out of influence with Iran,” he said. “In other words, we don’t have much leverage with the Iranians right now.”

Several members of Congress, including some Republicans, have accused Mr. Rumsfeld of insensitivity in responding to complaints from troops who lack sufficient armor in Iraq. Others have criticized him for not personally signing condolence letters to the families of fallen soldiers, a practice he has promised to change.

“Sometimes perhaps his demeanor is rough and gruff,” Mr. Bush said. “But beneath that rough and gruff, no-nonsense demeanor is a good human being who cares deeply about the military, and deeply about the grief that war causes.”

As if to make Mr. Bush’s point, Mr. Rumsfeld issued a holiday message of support to the 138,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.

“I thank you for your courage,” he said. “I thank you for your commitment. And to your families and loved ones, I extend my deepest appreciation for your sacrifices.”

The tone was more conciliatory than the one that critics said he adopted Dec. 8, when he told troops in Kuwait: “You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.”

Mr. Rumsfeld had been responding to a complaint from Spc. Thomas Wilson of the Tennessee National Guard that soldiers had to dig through junk piles to reinforce vehicles on the way into Iraq.

Mr. Rumsfeld’s response was viewed as callous by many Democrats and journalists. Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, announced he had no confidence in Mr. Rumsfeld, a sentiment echoed by fellow Republican Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Trent Lott of Mississippi.

Yesterday, the president hinted that Mr. Rumsfeld would be mending some fences on Capitol Hill.

“I know the secretary understands the Hill,” Mr. Bush said. “He has been around in Washington a long period of time and he will continue to reach out to members of the Hill, explaining the decisions he has made.”

As for complaints about Mr. Rumsfeld using a machine to affix his signature to condolence letters, Mr. Bush defended the secretary in unusually personal terms.

“I know Secretary Rumsfeld’s heart,” the president said. “I know how much he cares for the troops. He and his wife go out to Walter Reed and Bethesda all the time to provide comfort and solace,” he added, in a reference to medical facilities for injured troops.

Mr. Bush said he has “heard the anguish in his voice and seen his eyes when we talk about the danger in Iraq, and the fact that youngsters are over there in harm’s way. And he is a good, decent man. He’s a caring fellow.”

Turning to the other side of the world, Mr. Bush also called for “continuing the six-party talks with North Korea to convince Kim Jong-il to give up his weapons systems.” He added, “The best way to convince him to disarm is to get others to weigh in as well.”

Mr. Bush said he expects Iran to listen to other countries in much the same way he expects North Korea to listen to its neighbors who are demanding nuclear disarmament.

But he cautioned that diplomatic pressure on Iran should be given time to work and noted major differences between the situation with Tehran and the lengthy disputes with Saddam Hussein over Iraq’s weapons programs.

“It’s much different between the situation in Iraq and Iran because of this: Diplomacy had failed for 13 years in Iraq. As you might remember, and I’m sure you do, all the U.N. resolutions that were passed out of the United Nations — totally ignored by Saddam Hussein,” Mr. Bush said.

“Diplomacy must be the first choice and always the first choice … and we’ll continue to press on diplomacy,” he said.

As for Iraq, the president warned of increased violence ahead of elections next year. He and other U.S. officials have warned Iran and others against fomenting the insurgency in Iraq.

“The terrorists will attempt to delay the elections, to intimidate people in their country, to disrupt the democratic process,” he said. “I’m confident the terrorists will fail, the elections will go forward, and Iraq will be a democracy.”

Mr. Bush, however, acknowledged that Iraq’s army, some units of which have fled the battlefield under fire, is not ready to defend the country against terrorists who continue to bomb military and civilian targets alike.

“They’ve got some generals in place and they’ve got foot soldiers in place, but the whole command structure necessary to have a viable military is not in place,” he said. “No question about it, the bombers are having an effect.”

Another potential obstacle to Iraqi reconstruction comes from Syria, Mr. Bush said.

“I spent some time talking to our generals about whether or not there are former Saddam loyalists in Syria,” he said. “We ought to be working with the Syrian government to prevent them from either sending money and/or support of any kind.”

He made clear that Syria will be punished if it does not cooperate.

“We have tools at our disposal, a variety of tools, ranging from diplomatic tools to economic pressure — nothing is taken off the table,” he said. “I expect these countries to honor the political process in Iraq without meddling.”

Mr. Bush suggested democratic success in Iraq would bode well for peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

He accused Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who died last month, of being a duplicitous manipulator “who on some days would say we’re for peace and some days would say now is the time to attack.”



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